by Jack R. Van Der Slik
In a ham-handed introduction of Rick Perry, Reverend Robert Jeffries crudely raised a religious challenge to Mormons seeking the US presidency. According to a CNN report, Jeffries said, “I…believe that as Christians, we have the duty to select Christians as our leaders….Between a Rick Perry and a Mitt Romney, I believe evangelicals need to go with Rick Perry.”
Among American privileges is the right to vote. With that comes the freedom to vote on any criterion: looks, color, party, ethnic identity, issue positions, sincerity, religious affiliation, social status—whatever. Prejudice is a dynamic force in American elections. Writing to Christians, I expect a higher standard. So, what about Mormon candidates for president? Two are apparent at this writing: Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.
It might be appropriate for Christians to classify Mormonism as a “cult.” It makes biblically unorthodox claims about the nature and character of God. It regards the Book of Mormon as holy writ, equal in authority with the Bible. It extols a Jesus who visited America after the biblically described ascension. It rejects the “one God, three persons” theology of the Nicene and Athanasian creeds. No, Mormonism is not within the orthodox Christian family of faith. Its adherents, Latter-Day Saints, are not Christians. Regarding their eternal reward, we leave to the judgment of God.
But who can challenge the moral “love your neighbor” principles that Mormons espouse and practice? If the “Protestant work ethic” is, as Max Weber suggested, a legacy of Calvin’s theology, Latter-Day Saints do as well or better. The Book of Mormon fervently admonishes its adherents to keep God’s commandments that they may be saved. The warnings are so strong that some consider Mormonism a religion of “works salvation.” Even so, many Christian evangelicals envy the voluntary outreach by young Mormons who, as foot soldiers for their church, answer its missionary call.
Certainly from the Declaration of Independence to the present there has been ambiguity and argument about religion and its place in America’s public square. The Declaration, handiwork of deist Thomas Jefferson, refers merely to “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” The Constitution provided no provisions for either religious freedom or ecclesiastical disestablishment. The First Amendment’s initial sixteen words assured religious free exercise, but their meaning for limiting government, especially since the Fourteenth Amendment, constantly challenges the nation’s judicial system.
Presidential elections, beginning with Adams versus Jefferson, have had conspicuous religious dimensions. By the time both men died on July 4, 1826, religious establishments were gone. Religious plurality and dissent made freedom from orthodox Christianity civically acceptable, if not respectable.
Fast forward to 1960. John F. Kennedy, mindful of the crushing defeat of Al Smith, a Catholic Democratic presidential candidate in 1928, pled his case before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation nor imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.” Kennedy expressed a commitment to secular criteria for his policymaking, thereby damping down anti-Catholicism among predominantly Protestant voters.
In June 2011, Gallup reported that nine out of ten Americans said they could vote for a presidential candidate who was black, female, Catholic, or Jewish. But 22 percent would not vote for a Mormon. Certainly that confirms a barrier for Romney and Huntsman.
Yet a remarkable number of Latter-Day Saints have served in high public offices. Ezra Taft Benson was Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture for all eight years. Terrel Howard Bell was Reagan’s secretary of education, and Brent Scowcroft was his foreign-policy advisor, in addition to serving as national security advisor under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. Mormon US senators include Bob Bennett, Jake Garn, and Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Harry Reid of Nevada. Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney were state governors, as was Mitt’s father, George. Stewart Udall was a congressman and secretary of the interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Numerous Mormons have served in the US House and a great many more in state legislatures and local governments. Most have been conservative on cultural issues like abortion and marriage. Rarely have scandal or corruption besmirched their public performances.
We who proclaim Christ as Lord hold a theology that is different from fellow Americans who are Latter-Day Saints. But in moral living, among both adherents and political practitioners, Mormons affirm the same commitments that we hold dear. If that is cultism at work, we should learn from it. Certainly we can support it with our votes.